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Learn to Play Any Song

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#1 solidwalnut


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Posted 05 April 2008 - 04:21 PM

Learn to Play Any Song

This article talks about the components usually found in songs. The purpose is so you might be able to identify sections of songs and then learn to dissect them in order to learn to play them. It mentions lyrics, but does not get into details concerning lyric structures and writing lyrics for songs. Look for a future article in my lesson forum titled Learn to Write Songs: Lyrics for more details about lyric writing and styles.

You really want to learn a song and you don't have any idea what the chords might be. What do you do? This is a great opportunity to develop your ear. You could download or find the TAB. TAB might help, but he best way to learn to play any song is by listening to the song and breaking it into digestible chunks. There is so much going on in a song that we're better of first by breaking down and listing the componenents. In this way, you'll be able to listen to any song and begin to label the components.

General Notes

You know what? The real goal is to learn to develop your ear and to teach yourself how to learn a song by your ear. Simply listen to the progression of notes. Stop the song. Hum the notes back. Find the note progression on the guitar. Start small and you'll be amazed how far this will take you and how much you will learn about playing. Hey, there's only so many ways to play a G chord on the guitar. And in each case, the progression of notes in the chord has a unique sound. Once you begin to learn this stuff, you're on the road to becoming an expert.

Song Parts

First it might be handy to understand the basic components of popular songs. This usually spans across all genres, even though the order of the components may differ from time to time.







Let's briefly talk about each:

Intro -- The intro usually has no lyrics and is a section of music usually two, four, six or so measures in duration. The intro almost always contains the 'musical hook', which is generally a certain melody that is played along with a certain chord progression. The reason it's called a hook is because this melody is designed to be memorable and will be repeated.

Verse -- Musically, the verse section is usually a chord progression that is designed to be repeated again. Lyrically, the verse section is designed to introduce the writer's story.

Pre-chorus -- Musically, the pre-chorus is a short chord progression that is designed to bridge the verse section with an upcoming chorus section. Lyrically, the pre-chorus section is used by the writer to sum up what it is they're saying in the verse section. Or they often use this section as a set-up for the chorus lyrics. Many times you won't hear the term 'pre-chorus' because the lyrics are actually and usually considered a part of the verse. However, the chord progression is almost unmistakeably separate or different.

Chorus -- Musically, the chorus section is often considered the meat-and-potatos section of the song. The chord progression is the main progression, and often thought of as the main musical hook (or the most memorable chord progression) of the song. Often times it will contain the musical hook introduced by the Intro.

Bridge -- Musically, the Bridge chord progression is usually and totally different from any other in the song. It's often a drastic departure from any other section in the song, but it is also designed to be a chord 'turn around' so the listener can then return to another rendition of the chorus.

Outro -- The Outro usually has no lyrics and is a section of music usually two, four, six or so measures in duration. The Outro almost always contains the 'musical hook' and is often a repeat of the Intro section, though not always. In any case, the section signals and contains the right sequence of chords to end the song.

Capturing Lyrics

Lyrics are something that you most likely can find on the internet. But should you need to, you can just start at the beginning of the song and pause after each line. Writing down one-line-at-a-time, you can always 'rewind' to go over any words you might have missed before moving forward. It's best to recognize, whether before hand or during this process, whether this particular part of the lyric is Verse 1 or Pre-chorus or Chorus or Bridge, etc. Actually, it can be helpful to learn and write down the lyrics rather than searching and copying them from the internet because you begin to see how the lyrics and music flow together earlier in the learning process. This also can sharpen your listening skills.

Capturing Chord Progressions

The underlying musical sections of songs can be determined in sections. In the spirit of chunking and chaining, learn small chunks then chain them together. Learn the chords of the Intro first. This may not be necessarily easy for those of you just starting out, but it's well worth the effort. How do you capture the chords from the intro? Listen to it...

First, realize that this is really a simple process. No, I don't mean to say that it's all that easy to do. What I mean is that the chord progressions of songs are really very predictable. And they're often just variations of a thousand different songs. Spend some time understanding the Roman Numeral System of chords, and you will begin to see the A-B-C's of the selection of chords used in songs. See Kirk's lesson The Music Building to get a great overall view. If you don't understand the basic chords available to a writer and the Roman Numeral System, it is well worth spending the time in learning this. Even if you don't grasp it right away, don't despair. The information is there for you for as long as it takes. No rush, it's all about the journey...return to the lessons and learn small chunks of this information and chain it together with what you already know.

Here is the basic overview of the Roman Numeral System. The roman numerals are on top, and you can find the key (and first chord of the key) in the left column and the chords associated with that key along the same line. Read each line from left to right.

Posted Image

Upper case designates a major chord, lower case designates a minor chord. The answer to why some are major and some are minor can be found in the three-part lesson The Major Scale Chart. The above graphic is a part of the main graphic there. For now, just go with the system. And when you're ready, please check out the major scale chart. You'll be very glad that you did. For another angle on how the roman numeral system connects with basic theory, check out Tekker's lesson Music Theory Basics.

Just know right now that the most favorite substitute chord for the vii chord is a V7 chord. So that means in the key of C, you can play a G7 instead of a Bm7b5.

Listen to the first note. This is often same as the key of the song. Not always, so listen for what note the bass player lands on when the downbeat (or the first beat) of the measure comes around. But many, many times in pop songs the bass player keeps it simple and plays the key note on the downbeat of each measure, and this should be a signal to you that the guitar chord is also changing. It will most often be changing to the chord name of the note that the bass player is playing.

Dance of the Intervals

No matter what the note name is that the bass player is playing, what is beginning is a dance of intervals. Here's where Fretsource's Interval Ear Trainer lesson will come in handy.

So, we're going to make up a song. Hum the notes as we talk about them. We start by listening to the bass player. YOU are now the bass player. Remember that the notes on a bass guitar are the same as the top four strings on your guitar. The beginning note of our song is the root note, representing the I chord. The next note on the following downbeat from the bass player is six steps above the root (the interval between the root and the sixth above. Sing or hum to yourself, "Do Re Mi Fa So La" or "1 2 3 4 5 6". Do-La is the interval.). That will make the second chord in our progression the vi chord. On the next downbeat we hear a note that is five steps above the root (remember that all notes are relative to the root for our purposes here). That will make it the V chord. Next, we hear a note that is four steps above the root note. This will make our chord the IV chord.

Posted Image

For our song, let's say that the chord will be changing on the first beat of each measure, and that this section of our song, the Intro, is four measures long. Play in 4/4 time signature. So, we'll play and count: chord, 2, 3, 4, chord, 2, 3, 4, chord, 2, 3, 4, chord, 2, 3, 4. What is our progression of chords? I, vi, V, IV. Our new song is in the key of A, so the A note and the A chord will be the first one. Our progression is Do-La-So-Fa. We have A, F#m, E, D as our notes and our chords. First play these notes on your guitar:

x0xxxx, 2xxxxx, xx2xxx, xx0xxx

Now play the chords

x02220, 244222 (or xx4222), 022100, xx0232

What if we discovered that the first note of the song was a C note? It's still the same progression, I, vi, V, IV. So only the names of the chords would change: C, Am, G, F. The intervals between notes/chords remain the same. Do you see why I call this the Dance of the Intervals and why the learning the Roman Numeral System is so invaluable?

Learn by Sections

So now you have the formula for learning the chord progressions. Learn the song by learning sections and then add the sections together. Chunking and Chaining. You've now learned the Intro section of this song. Now use this knowledge to listen to and learn another song you want to learn to play. Remember that these chord progressions will repeat themselves during the song. It's up to us to recognize when they are repeated. So, when learning a song learn the big picture: the arrangement of the different sections.

  • Once you know the chord progression for the Intro, you can almost always assume they'll be the same chords for the Outro.
  • Once you know the chord progression for the Verse, it will most likely always be the same for each verse. Just listen for the differences.
  • The progression for the Chorus is often repeated during a song 3, 4 or more times.
  • The Bridge section is often a one-time progression
Write down the progression when you have it (i.e., Verse 1, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Verse 2, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus x2). Then you can spend the time writing the chords above the words, one-section-at-a-time.

I sure hope this is helpful.

Steve Cass
Solid Walnut Music/ASCAP

Becoming a great guitarist has less to do with fancy moves than it does becoming a master of the basics and learning musicianship.
It's not what you can't do. It's how you play what you already know.

View my lessons here at GfB&B

"Rhythm guitar is a trip that alot of people miss" -- Tom Petty


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